In a fitting tribute, the building where Indigenous affairs policy is developed was renamed Charles Perkins House last week, in honour of the celebrated anti-discrimination campaigner and former Department of Aboriginal Affairs secretary.
The late Dr Charles Perkins (pictured above at centre) became the first Indigenous Commonwealth secretary in 1984, after being appointed to the top job at the department where he started as a research officer in 1969. Before, during and after his career as a public servant, however, Perkins remained an activist first and foremost.
He was a major figure in the struggle for equal rights, arguing powerfully and publicly on behalf of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and leaving a towering legacy.
If Perkins had a choice between playing the role of the mild-mannered public servant to stay in the good books or speaking his mind, he chose the latter. He was famously suspended from his government job after publicly labelling the Western Australian government racist rednecks, and countless other anecdotes tell of a man whose life’s work was speaking truth to power, and never giving up on a fair go for the first Australians, above all else.
Staff of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet’s Indigenous affairs group have long worked out of the south Canberra office block, described as “the home of Indigenous affairs” by PM&C, since prior to 2013 when they were brought together into a single structure within the central agency.
Charles Perkins House replaced the much blander “Centraplaza” at a ceremony last week, attended by relatives of Perkins and “other significant names in Indigenous Affairs” according to a brief report from the department.
A spokesperson said the new name would stand as “a reminder of his significant contribution to the Australian Public Service, Indigenous Affairs, and to Australia’s national identity”.
While it’s not a stand-alone department, the creation of the IA group marked a move back towards centralisaton from the arrangements it superseded. It has slightly more autonomy than most comparable groupings as it works under an associate secretary, the former vice-chief of the Australian Defence Force, Ray Griggs. This is one of only two such positions that currently exist in the Australian Public Service and has higher status than deputy secretaries.
Perkins’ niece Patricia Turner, a former APS deputy secretary herself and chief executive of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation, did the honours with PM&C secretary Martin Parkinson and deputy secretary for Indigenous affairs, Ian Anderson.
“Dr Perkins was a proud Arrernte and Kalkadoon man and laid the foundation for the type of forward-thinking Indigenous Affairs policy we aspire to at PM&C,” Parkinson said in the statement.
Anderson said Perkins was “an inspiration to public servants and the Indigenous community alike” and noted he was one of the first Aboriginal people to receive a university degree, leader of the 1965 Australian Freedom Ride, and an influential advocate of the yes-vote in the 1967 referendum that essentially created the policy area where he would later become the chief administrator.
We’re told PM&C “worked closely with the owner of the building to secure its agreement” to rename the building and that no money changed hands with the owner, the evri group.
“The Department also engaged Dr Perkins’ family as well as key Indigenous stakeholders in the naming of the building and design of the tribute to Dr Perkins,” a spokesperson added.
Not far up the road is Bonner House, which has also hosted various Indigenous affairs agencies over the years and is named after Neville Bonner, an elder of southern Queensland’s Yugara people who was Australia’s first Indigenous member of federal parliament.
Top image: Charles Perkins, centre, with Bowraville residents in 1965, from the State Library of New South Wales.